On Spain’s general election & Podemos’ prospects – op-ed in Newsweek

12/05/2016 by

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Last July, Mariano Rajoy, Spain’s conservative prime minister, exited a 17-hour-long European Council meeting dedicated to Greece, wielding in front of the cameras the surrender document that his Greek counterpart, Alexis Tsipras, had just signed. Staring into the camera he told the Spanish people watching at home: “This is what you get by voting for parties like Syriza.”

The crushing of the Athens Spring, together with the soothing fairytale of Spain’s economic “recovery,” was meant to stem the rise of Podemos (a.k.a Spain’s answer to Syriza) and to lead Rajoy to a general election victory in December 2015. Alas, voters had other ideas, denying Rajoy a working majority, giving Podemos a larger share than the pollsters had predicted, and producing a hung parliament.

Since then, frantic negotiations between Rajoy’s People’s Party, the fading Socialists led by Pedro Sanchez, the newfangled neoliberal Citizens’ party and Podemos have failed to produce a coalition government, triggering a fresh general election. The new contest’s outcome will hinge on whether Podemos manages to rise from third to second place, pushing the Socialists into a fate similar to that suffered by the Greek socialists (PASOK) and awaiting the French socialists next year.

If Podemos fails, a grand coalition of the establishment parties, possibly with the addition of the Citizens’ party, is on the cards. But if Podemos manages to shrug off Syriza’s humiliation and overcome Rajoy’s fear mongering to become the second largest party, another hung parliament will spell the end of the two-party system. This will yield a Madrid government inimical to the troika and the ironclad majority that the German Finance Minister Wolfgang Schäuble has surrounded himself with in the Eurogroup.

Such a development would spell trouble for Europe’s frazzled establishment which, for this reason, is now trying to rush through a new Greek austerity package before the end of May. The hope is to trap Athens into permanent debt bondage before the Spanish voters deliver a verdict likely to alter the balance of power within the Eurogroup.

But will Podemos manage to overtake the Socialists? This prospect has better odds now, compared to last December, for three reasons.

First, Spain’s voters have already tasted the ruling party’s blood last December and they seem to like it.

Second, they now have more evidence at their disposal that the troika and the Schäuble-leaning Eurogroup are out of their depth everywhere in Europe—just witness the row between Schäuble and the President of the European Central Bank over monetary policy.

Third, and more important, Podemos has recently struck an agreement with Izquierda Unida (United Left), Spain’s traditional leftwing party that gathered one million votes last December. Together with other convergent forces (the Mareas, Barcelona en Comú, Coalició Compromís), Podemos is building up a dynamic that can score at the ballot box more than the sum of its parts.

But Podemos’s greatest weakness, besides Syriza’s capitulation last summer, is its lack of a coherent European agenda and its silence on how it will deal with the Eurogroup and the European Central Bank, institutions that will most likely begin asphyxiating a Podemos-centred government even before its appointment.

A majority of Spanish voters are keen to see a new government taking on the troika institutions. But they need to know how a Podemos government will counter them—what new policies Madrid will propose, not just for Spain but as an alternative to the current policy mix that increasingly jeopardises the Eurozone’s integrity.

Last December, Podemos made the mistake of opposing austerity at home without spelling out a program for altering the Eurozone’s “business plan,” within which Spain’s austerian fiscal policy is embedded. A government representing the monetary union’s fourth largest economy has to have clear proposals for the euro area as a whole.

Without a plan for ending the deflationary process everywhere, Podemos’ promise to end austerity in Spain rings hollow. And many Spanish voters, who might otherwise jump on the Podemos-United Left bandwagon, are deterred.

Podemos’s demand for an end to austerity is increasingly timely. Facing a domestic backlash, Rajoy has already asked Brussels for leniency over Spain’s deficit targets while José García Margallo, his foreign minister, confessed the other day that “we went too far with austerity”—clarifying later that by “we” he meant the European Commission. Nonetheless, Podemos must do better than simply ask for (as Rajoy and Matteo Renzi, Italy’s prime minister, do) leniency and the right to violate the Eurozone’s fiscal pact. The party must impress voters with an imaginative program that can boost growth and address debt-deflation throughout Europe.

Such a program should involve a pan-European investment-led recovery initiative, to the tune of 8 percent of the Eurozone’s aggregate income, run by the European Investment Bank and funded through a large issuance of the EIB’s own bonds, with the European Central Bank standing by to purchase these bonds in the secondary markets as the need arises.

It would also involve central bank operations for reducing member state’s debt servicing costs for the part of the national debt permitted by the existing rules (60 percent of national income), direct bank recapitalisations from the European Stability Mechanism and, last but not least, a poverty-fighting program funded from the profits accumulating within the Target Two account of the European System of Central Banks.

Such a European Agenda would blow auspicious winds into Podemos’ sails and make the next election a true game changer for Spain and for Europe. It would counter the scaremongering campaign that the Popular and Citizens’ parties are beginning to wage against the Left and would, more generally, lift the level of political debate everywhere.

Europe is on the brink and our “Union” is disintegrating as a result of a pernicious mixture of authoritarianism and bad policy. Spain can change this. But to do so, Podemos must rise on the back of an appealing European Agenda.

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